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The Whale Mother


As promised in the email she’d received, the shuttle was waiting at the curb outside baggage claim. It was just a minivan, it turned out, not the wheeled and finned amphibious contraption she’d been vaguely expecting from its mysterious name, SeaTac–Whidbey Island Shuttle. The shuttle’s doors were open; a driver was checking names off a clipboard. A frowsy older couple in matching rain jackets; a likely student plugged into her earbuds; and a very tall man, who was busily befriending the others with an eye, he told them cheerfully, to getting the seat with the most legroom. This turned out to be in the first row, while Leila wound up in the second, but the tall man, who had begun talking to Leila the instant his eyes lit on her, continued once they were seated, twisting his long torso to half-face her over his shoulder. “Coming home?” he asked, and his abrupt address paired with his singular physical presence surprised her into something like alacrity, a state she’d been so far exiled from for so long she hadn’t even remembered its name. “No,” she replied. “Are you?” And when he said yes, in fact he’d lived on the island at one point for more than ten years, the conversation went from there, simply bloomed and sent tendrils all over the minivan’s grimy interior as if there weren’t ultimately nine people crammed inside, including themselves and the driver. They’d had to interrupt themselves to listen with impatient politeness when the driver gave his spiel about schedule and safety.

Perhaps she hadn’t quite reclaimed alacrity. Information tumbled from the tall man, place names and business concerns and waterways; at one point he broke eye contact with her to look down at his phone, but before she could seize the opportunity to muster her focus he handed the phone to her, its screen displaying a three-masted boat. How beautiful, she said automatically.

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is the author of five novels, most recently Trust Exercise, which received the 2019 National Book Award. Last year she also published her first book for children, Camp Tiger.

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